This week's portion, Yitro, which is named after an elder who was not a Jew, includes the first recitation of the Ten Commandments. Throughout the centuries, Jews have debated how Moses' father-in-law Yitro, or Jethro, came to be identified with the first articulation of the basic laws that have guided so many for so long.
Jethro joins Moses, Aaron and "all the elders of Israel," "at the mountain of God," a powerful place of sacred encounter. "Next day, Moses sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening. But when Moses' father-in-law saw how much he had to do … he said, 'What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand all about you from morning until evening?' "
Jethro concludes that each individual deserves more attention than one leader can offer. Numerous contemporary experts on leadership have invoked Jethro's counsel. Certainly, delegation is an art — successful leaders, in every field, must expertly choose associates and build an effective leadership team. And then, as Jethro advises, these newly appointed chiefs must test and learn the limits of their own knowledge and abilities.
As Jethro tells Moses, "Have them bring every major dispute to you, but let them decide every minor dispute themselves." Jethro teaches Moses that he, too, must learn to realistically assess his own skills, and the limits of his own energy. From his mentor Jethro, Moses learns the imperative of sharing both the responsibilities and burdens of leadership, thus clearing paths to better service to a greater number of Israelites.
This year, we read Yitro on the eve of Disabilities Awareness Month. According to the National Organization on Disabilities, more than 54 million Americans are disabled. That means that one in every five Americans has some form of disability, affecting them and their families.
The Torah teaches us that Moses' own disability, his speech impediment, led him to question his own fitness as a leader. When Moses heeded Jethro's sage advice and "chose capable individuals" to share his work, he increased his own strength. Moses realized that true service recognizes every member of the community, not only those who can wait the longest, or seem to be the most able in body or mind.
For Jews, Disabilities Awareness Month is a reminder that each of us is a reflection of the Holy One. When we look into the mirror, we see God. This month reminds us that God has many faces. We are inviting God into our synagogues, schools and Jewish institutions when we build ramps, and provide listening and learning devices, and ask each member of our community, "How can we make this your Jewish home? How can we partner with you to help you celebrate with us? How can we support each member of your family to participate fully in Jewish life?"
The portion reminds us of the needs of our leaders and of the entire community. Perhaps Jethro earned his place of honor because his wisdom, and Moses' ability to respond, ensured the continuation of the Jewish people. Can we take our place as leaders, surrounding ourselves with appropriate partners and welcoming all into our Jewish communities?
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as the worship specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism. E-mail her at: slelwell.urj.org.